Terror Management and the Modern World
It is a strange situation in which we humans find ourselves. We find ourselves conscious, wrapped in mortal flesh, aware of our own selves, aware of our own individuality. We have thoughts and emotions of which we are cognizant. We exist on a tiny blue planet in the cosmos. Our ability to think, to reason, to connect with other of our species are what separates us from the rest of the life on this planet. Our capacity for thought has helped us climb to the top of the food chain despite our relative physical weaknesses. What began as cooperation between early man and his fellows has now become the basis of society, law, and civilization today. So what does a modern human make of all this? With all of the advances in science and conveniences of the modern world, what is it that drives mankind?
A glance back over our history shows many anthropological, psychological, and sociological threads which seem common to us all. In the book, The Birth and Death of Meaning, (Becker, E. 1962), the author outlines the anthropological and psychological mechanisms by which the individual consciousness has developed, and how the individual consciousness understands his world.When it comes to the universal experience of life on this planet, nothing is quite so universal than the idea of death. It runs as clearly through our cultures and histories as it runs through own thought. The ability to think in symbolic terms, i.e. the ability to represent whole ideas with the use of symbols, whether these symbols are words that represent real world objects and situations, or whether these symbols are ethereal in nature as in the case of ideas, philosophies, concepts, or the supernatural: symbols have assigned meaning to our world and an unprecedented understanding of that world. Yet it is precisely this ability to consider our world symbolically which has also been the primary source of our suffering. With the ability to think in symbols came the ability to consider the conditions of our existence. With an ability to differentiate the “I” from the “not I”, we have grown to understand the nature of being. Yet individual understanding of one’s own existence, come with the price tag non-existence. Awareness of being comes with the understanding that we have not always existed, nor will we exist forever. At a very tender age we begin to wrestle with this understanding. By middle childhood, we have come to fully understand the implications. “The idea of death, and the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is the mainspring of human activity.” (Becker, 1973. ix) Often we will have gathered some experience in this realm through the loss of an early childhood pet, or the death of a relative. Someday, we soon understand, we too will die (Becker, E. 1962, pp 1-27).
So how does a self-aware creature, who is cognizant of his own demise, years and decades before the fact, deal with the knowledge that he will wink out of existence one day? In The Denial of Death (Becker, 1973), we see the case for culture as the solution to our existential dilemma. Our shared symbols and collective meanings, associations, and accomplishments become the key to a type of immortality. We take part in aspects of our culture which will live beyond our own limitations. We participate in the world through social activity, “Activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destination for man.” (Becker, 1973. ix) This is the basis of Terror Management Theory. In summary, we utilize our cultural associations, and our membership in various groups, to serve as the antidote to our existential paradox. Being a creature who can think so well, that he understands his lack of permanence is not an easy dilemma to solve. Yet the management of our anxiety about our own demise can be largely assuaged by our cultural associations. Whereas Freud thought that sex was the cause of all of our problems, Becker believes it is the anxiety of our ultimate death which is the cause of our dysfunction. Still, the existential problems we face are not fully solved by culture. And what happens when we encounter other cultures? In these modern times, we can easily see the practicality of Terror Management, so let’s examine the evidence. (Becker, E. 1973).
Evidence for Terror Management
In order to understand the evidence for TMT, we must understand the idea of mortality salience. Mortality salience is defined as the awareness of one’s ultimate demise. In TMT, we see that culture, broadly defined is the antithesis to mortality salience. More specifically however, we must see the culture defines our worldview, and that our individual worldview is provides the answer to the personal terror we feel when we recognize our ultimate demise. Worldviews are composed of beliefs, religious affiliation, political ideologies, statesmanship, and other affiliations which serve as a lens to construct our worldview. We each have individual lenses or ideologies we subscribe to which define our reality and provide a path to immortality by being part of something greater than ourselves so that where we may not live on, a group, idea, or religion, may exist far beyond our time here, thereby granting access indirectly for the individual to obtain immortality (Rosenblatt, Greenberg, Sheldon, Pyszcznski. 1989).
Experimentally it was derived that exposure to that which lies outside of one’s cultural worldview would bring mortal salience to the surface. Since anything different than one’s worldview threatens that worldview, then the access to immortality is threatened by that which lies outside of one’s worldview. Thus, mortality salience is raised, and immortality is threatened, which causes the psychological revolt to that which lies outside of one’s worldview. The reaction to mortality saliency and threats to one’s immortality, is violence.
Rosenblatt et.al. (1989), ran a series of experiments to demonstrate the reaction to mortality salience. Self-esteem is link intrinsically culture, since culture provides meaning and value. Culture also provides the security of a just world and real and symbolic immortality. To be esteemed in one’s culture grants access to immortality. But the bolstering of self-esteem is a constant struggle to ward of reminders of one’s own death. Since self-esteem is derived through culture, that which threatens culture threatens self-esteem and personal value and thus confronts us with mortality.
In the first experiment, researchers exposed municipal judges to manipulations which caused a rise in mortal salience. Simple open-ended questionnaires regarding what happens after death and the emotions this bring up were administered. Immediately after they were asked to assign penalties for prostitution case files. It was found that the judges exposed to the MS questionnaires assigned higher punitive bond rulings on the cases than those not exposed to MS manipulation. In the remaining experiments, it was shown that not only did exposure to MS manipulation change outcomes, but the experimenters also ruled out thing’s like self-awareness as being a mitigating factor. By isolating MS manipulation, Rosenblatt et. al. (1989) were able to demonstrate that exposure to MS, either through cultural identity, or through questions about one’s own mortality, all changed outcomes along predictable lines. The exposure to MS intensified outcome reactions, which demonstrates a reactivity to ideas that threaten cultural buffering against MS. Also, exposure to MS, strengthened ideas about morality and transgressions of morality which are held by culture at large. Thus, the reaction to those things which cross morality-cultural boundaries, were negatively esteemed by the participants. This particular study, forms the basis of TMT research today.
A meta-analysis of social psychology experiments conducted by Burke, Martens, and Fauscher in 2010, showed that since the groundbreaking MS experiments of Rosenblatt in 1989, 277 experiments have been conducted testing the role of MS among various populations including Americans, college students, and specific genders. The experimenters were concerned with TMT experimentation along several lines, but specifically, the research looked at the quantifiable effect size of two decade of TMT research and found that the magnitude of MS effect on experimental outcomes was robust at r = .35. The researchers concluded that the effect of MS on experimental outcomes “produces moderate to large effects across a wide variety of MS manipulations as well as attitudinal, cognitive, and behavioral dependent variables.”(Burke, Martens, Fauscher. 2010).
There is a significant amount of experimental research to imply that not only is MS a significant factor in the human experience, but that it underlies many of our motives, thoughts and actions. Therefore, we are returned to the original idea that cultural buffering from MS is a uniquely human and essential part of our adaptation to the cognizance of death. Furthermore, that which threatens our cultural buffers and identity brings our MS to the surface. And finally, that when MS is brought to the surface, the intensity of our reaction is often punitive, judgmental, and or violent. Historically, when one culture encounter another culture, there were automatic effort to either convert or destroy these cultures. In fact, history is comprised largely of these stories. From the settling of the America’s to modern wars in Iraq and Afghanistan we see this playing out. More importantly however, is the idea that aspects of culture which provide our safety from mortal truth, also hinder social progression. For example, the equal rights movements, across gender, race, and sexual orientation, have all been hampered by cultural identity. Religion also, plays a significant role as it is the belief in supernatural constructs which provides the majority of us with the answer as to what happens when we die. This has hampered scientific discovery and the disbursement of scientific fact throughout the population. No one want to be told that what they believe is false, and they will rally against it, even in the mounting face of evidence.
This brings us to the broad scope. Our subjugation of the natural world, our rise of culture and religion, and our protection of these cultural identities have lead us to perhaps our greatest problem- the eventual extinction of mankind. As we have altered the world, warred, exploited, and manipulated everything from one another, to natural resources, all in an attempt to protect what we call “our way of life”; we have destroyed the environment around us and degraded the planet to such a degree that to continue on as we are can only mean ruin. So, in avoiding death we have brought ourselves to the doorway of death on a massive scale. We are facing the truth, as Jacque Fresco, inventor of the Venus Project, has said, where we must “evolve or perish”. Mr. Fresco ascertains that technology is the access point through which we may find salvation, and perhaps he is correct. Yet for the individual, the specific paradigms of his day to day reality are immoveable objects. The idea of work, consumerism, political participation, religion, education, and monetary systems are the identifying staples of common culture and cultural values. Thus, in order to save ourselves, we must change the very systems of culture, and we must change that which we value in these systems, and we must change it collectively. The occasional enlightened mind, such as that of Mr. Fresco, are not going to be sufficient for us to pull ourselves out of decline. It must be done en-masse, otherwise, it will offer no protection from the reality of our mortality and we will thus avoid it at all costs.
We see the effects of TMT all around us. We also see that in our struggle to escape death, when have essentially insured the demise of our species in the long run. Thus escape from death, whether on an individual level through cultural buffers, or at a societal level through cultural perpetuation, are both temporary solutions to a permanent problem. I believe that in the same way man has used his symbolic mind to assuage his death fears, he can move through this fear symbolically into a state of true existential freedom. Acceptance of one’s death, and a striving to make the most of mortal time through creative and loving action, is the road to enlightenment, peace, and freedom. In doing so, we will collectively recognize our predicament. We will embrace scientific advancement and the evolution of our species. And finally, acceptance of death is the answer to the violence and suffering we see today. It is hard to stand shoulder to shoulder with a fellow human, look up into the vastness of the cosmos, and not feel a kinship and brotherly love. In the face of such incredible truth, compassion and love are the only answers.
Becker, E. (1962). The Birth and Death of Meaning. 2nd Edition. (pp. 1-27, 32-53, 65-111) The Free Press. New York, New York.
Becker, E. (1973). The Denial of Death. (pp. xi, 11-25, 47-66). The Free Press. New York, New York.
Burke, B. Martens, A. Fauscher, E. (2010). Two decades of terror management theory: a meta- analysis of mortality salience research. Personality and Social Psychology Review. (14). 155-195.
Fresco, J. (2014). The Venus Project: Paradise or Oblivion. Retrieved from http://www.thevenusproject.com/
Rosenblatt, A. Greenberg, J. Solomon, S. Pyszcynski, T. Lyon, D. (1989) Evidence for terror management theory: I. The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who violate of uphold cultural values. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. (57). 681-690.